Feb 222011

Last weekend I watched Neokonchennaya pyesa dlya mekhanicheskogo pianino again — the first time in maybe a year.

The boy in the screen shot is playing a recording of what sounded like something from an Italian opera.  I don’t know much about opera, but I got to wondering what it is, and what it’s significance is.

It turns out that somebody already asked about it at answers.com.  The answer:  It’s the aria, Una furtiva lagrima, from  Gaetano Donizetti’s  L’elisir d’amore.     Wikipedia has the lyrics with an English translation, as well as a recording done by Enrico Caruso in 1911.   My untrained ear likes Caruso’s rendition of it more than any of the others I’ve found on YouTube.   The one in the film is pretty good, though.   In the closing scenes we get to hear the complete aria, as opposed to the fragments that were played earlier.

I dug out my wikipedia password and updated the aria’s page to add Unfinished piece for player piano to the list of films in which it is heard.

As to the significance of using that piece, I suppose it fits the film because it’s about sweet illusions of love, of which there are a few in the film.   It also fits in that it’s about the gulf between different socio-economic classes

A side note.  The opera comes from a period of special interest to me.   It premiered on May 12, 1832, which was two days before the battle at Stillman’s Run, the violent clash that set off the Black Hawk war.

I almost forgot to mention that it’s on video.google.com, with English subtitles.

Dec 312009


This is posted here so I can ask a Polish cyberfriend what he knows about the use of this kind of cavalry dress in the early 1600s. I’m also curious as to what birds provided those feathers, and on what occasions those things might have been worn. Presumably they wouldn’t be good in high winds when one needed to be agile. (I still don’t think this is a good movie, but it may not be Mikhalkov’s worst.)

Dec 192009


It was at this point in Five Evenings, before I got a good look at his face, that I suspected I had seen this guy before. It was the way he stood with his back straight, hands in his pockets, weight not quite balanced on both legs. It’s a younger version of the same guy who had played Uncle Vova in Kin-Dza-Dza!

I had to look up his name again. It’s Stanislav Lyubshin.


I didn’t recognize Lyudmila Gurchenko from her posture, though. It was not until she showed this facial expression that I recognized her.

I do try to read the film credits at the beginning, but I somehow missed these names. I would have recognized Gurchenko if I had read the subtitles, but I try to read the Russian instead, and am slow enough at it that I rarely have time to check the English. I’m getting better at it, but still can’t read them all as fast as they roll by.

I did catch Nikita Mikhalkov’s name in the credits, though. It’s OK. Just because I don’t like him doesn’t mean he hasn’t done some very good work Actually, his work as a director has usually been quite good, with a few exceptions like 1612: Chronicles of the Dark Times. His work as an actor is often not so good, though there are exceptions, like the role he gave himself in Unfinished Piece for Player Piano. His politics these days are not good, and sometimes his movies have a repressive political agenda – as in Twelve. Well, maybe that’s the only one. I suppose some people may see a foreign policy agenda in 1612, but if he took advantage of the opportunity (e.g. in the Russian attitude toward Poland) it was in nuances I was not able to detect even though I was looking for them.

We’ve only watched the first three YouTube segments of Five Evenings so far, but are looking forward to the rest. Myra and I enjoy watching movies about the 50s, even if it’s about countries where the 1950s were different than in the American midwest where we grew up. Or maybe especially if it’s about the 1950s in other countries.

We’re starting to get used to the idea of life in communal apartments, too. (Just the idea. We have no intention of looking for an opportunity to try it out ourselves.)

Dec 172009


I didn’t care for 1612 Chronicles of the Dark Times (2007). It doesn’t help that it’s a Nikita Mikhalkov film.

I’m not a fan of Mikhalkov, in part because he defends the state of artistic freedom under a national leader who has an uncanny knack for not being able to find the murderers of outspoken journalists. This behavior affects us as well as Russia. It is not helpful for journalistic and artistic freedom in the U.S. or anywhere else, especially at a time when it is under attack around the world, perhaps like it hasn’t been since the 1930s.

But I also don’t care much for Mikhalkov’s acting. In most movies he plays Nikita Mikhalkov rather than whatever character he’s supposed to be playing. At least in Dark Times he didn’t give himself any role that I noticed. If he did, we were at least spared another sight of him in a muscle shirt.

But Dark Times is especially bad. It could just as well be an American movie. Even the realistic parts are improbable when they’re not trite. And the minor actors look too bored to be engaged in a life-and-death struggle.


I could say a lot more bad things about Mikhalkov and his work, but I just finished re-watching Unfinished Piece for Player Piano.” I’ve watched it about once a year since 2006, and I think more highly of it each time. Sometimes I can’t believe it was made by the same Nikita Mikhalkov who made so many films I dislike (such as Burnt by the Sun, to name another). Even his acting is good in this one, here playing a doctor who doesn’t really like being a doctor, especially when the work has anything to do with patients and disease.

Life is not simple.

Oct 062009


So far I’ve watched up through part 5, and so far it’s great–one of the best I’ve seen. I wouldn’t have known how good it is based on the Wikipedia article about it, though:

The film received mixed reviews from critics. The entertainment magazine Variety referred to the film as “more off-putting than enthralling” and noted that while the film has been compared to the Academy Award–winning Burnt by the Sun, it lacked a main character that a viewer could identify with. Variety commented that Viktor’s personal struggles “[seemed] irrelevant” and criticized Petrenko’s “limited emotional repertoire”, as well as the poor acting of the remaining cast of characters.

I went to the Variety review that’s referred to and didn’t get any further enlightenment. I think the reviewer is nuts. The “off-putting” comment comes in this sentence:

For Western auds, however, pic’s oddly disjointed wedding of operatic emotionalism and cool aesthetic distance may prove more off-putting than enthralling.

The reviewer is perceptive in noting the contrast between “cool aesthetic distance” and emotionalism; however, so far I don’t see anything operatic about it. Maybe it gets operatic later. In any case, I happen to be one who finds the contrast enthralling. I’ve already gone back and watched some of the scenes over and over, even though I haven’t finished watching the whole thing yet.

I don’t know why it matters that there is not a main character to identify it, because there are several characters we quickly learn to care about: The General, Viktor, Vera — even Lida and the KGB guys. And there are other minor characters who are interesting, too. That’s what matters.

To mention Burnt by the Sun by way of comparison is goofy. Burnt doesn’t measure up to this one at all. It does have a central character — or should I say a central actor — Nikita Mikhalkov. But in his role as a retired military officer, I got no sense at all of why he would be admired and respected by the men who had fought under him. As usual, Mikhalkov played Mikhalkov. He just couldn’t pull off the character he’s supposed to play.

But here I am, contaminating a note about a good film with talk about an inferior one.

And poor acting? So far I haven’t seen any poor acting in this film. The screenshot above shows some great acting. The bad guy is a clean-cut young KGB officer who smiles easily, but who is doing some dastardly business in his interrogation of the General. Very realistic, IMO. Very seldom, i.e. almost never, do you see a movie that has guts enough to do that. Usually movies have to give the bad guys bad haircuts, bad complexions, and sinister mannerisms so you know they’re bad. But that’s not how the world works. The other KGB officer — the one who plays the General’s adjutant — has a little of the usual, but still it’s very subtly done.

The reviewer almost may have had a point about Igor Petrenko’s “limited emotional repertoire.” However, keep in mind that he’s a very young man. He’s playing the part of a young man very well, and there is more subtle variety to his behavior than you’re likely to get from a young Brad Pitt.

I wish I had the recording of Nature Boy that’s used in part 4 of the film. I wasn’t familiar with the song so had to google for information about it. I like the one on the film better than any version I’ve found on YouTube — even better than the Nat King Cole version I found there, though that one is pretty good. Who is singing in the film? The orchestration sounds like it comes from the late 40s or early 50s.

I see that Pavel Chukhraj, who directed the film, is also the person who made Vor. I’ll have to start paying attention to that name.

Mar 102009


Andrei Myagkov’s voice gives him away the moment he opens his mouth in this movie. I recognized him not by the way he looks, but by the way he talks. Same for Nikita Mikhalkov, though in his case I was expecting his appearance from what I read in the YouTube description. It wouldn’t have mattered. His voice gives him away.

It reminds me of how remarkable it was that Aleksandr Belyavsky could put on a such a different voice to play Leonid Brezhnev in Serye Volki.

Feb 042009

Tonight we started watching, Moi drug, Ivan Lapshin (My friend, Ivan Lapshin). We haven’t yet seen enough to learn why so many Russian critics have called it the best film in Russian history, but like I said, we’ve just started.

I’ve also gone back to watch Nikita Mikhalkov’s 2007 film, Twelve, for a 2nd time.


It’s a take-off on Twelve Angry Men. Here is juror #8 (at least he has that number in the play) explaining his “not guilty” vote by saying that the jury members should at least talk about it, first.

But although it starts by extolling the courageous juror, in the end this film is one of the sleaziest, sneakiest pieces of anti-democratic anti-rule-of-law propaganda I’ve ever seen. No wonder Putin said he shed a tear on seeing it.

At least that’s the way I remember it from the first viewing. I’m now watching it a 2nd time to observe more closely just how it was done, because the first time I didn’t realize until the end just how it had twisted. (And that was even though I had already read reviews that gave some idea of what to expect at the end.)

This is one of the few very few times in which Nikita Mikhalkov, the actor, didn’t give an annoying performance. He played it pretty straight. But as a moviemaker, this is as far as I know the worst thing he’s ever done.

No, I don’t mean the production. Mikhalkov is a talented director. It might be better if he weren’t.

I’ll explain more after I’ve seen more of it the 2nd time.

Apr 192008

Last night we started watching The Hound of the Baskervilles on YouTube. This is a Russian movie from 1981. Vasily Livanov is said to do the best Sherlock Holmes on film, ever. I have not watched much Sherlock Holmes on film, maybe none at all before this, so can’t vouch for that. But he portrays a lively intelligence rather a stodgy intelligence. Very good so far.

Vitaliy Solomin plays Watson. I’ve already seen him in Siberiade. And Nikita Mikhalkov, as always, plays Nikita Mikhalkov. He’s supposed to be playing Sir Henry Baskerville. I don’t know the Baskervilles story at all, so can’t say if it’s an appropriate match or not.

Feb 072008

Ha. I wouldn’t have guessed that on my own. Yury Yakovlev, who plays Bi in “Kin-Dza-Dza” is the same person who played Ippolit in Ryazanov’s “The Irony of Fate.” I had immediately recognized Yevgeny Leonov, the actor who plays Uef, as the same guy who had played the old retired military officer who rescues our hero in Mimino. But I hadn’t recognized his sidekick at all. Goes to show he has a bit of range to his talents. Contrast that to someone like Nikita Mikhalkov, who plays the same character no matter what movie he’s in.

I had earlier commented on how I couldn’t tell what had made the movie difficult to get past the Soviet censors. Well, duh, I should have known because I’ve talked about this several times. Usually in Soviet movies, the law enforcement and legal authorities are portrayed as wise, kindly, omniscient characters (e.g. in Brilliantovaya Ruka, Mimino) unless, of course, they are pre-revolutionary characters (e.g. in Siberiade). In Kin-Dza-Dza, nobody on planet Pluk is a nice guy. They are all back-stabbing, manipulative, selfish, ordinary people that are your everyday companions and colleagues. But the ecilops (police) are especially easy to dislike — smarmy characters like some bullies we all knew in school.

Maybe the trick was to get the censors to think of these as pre-revolutionary characters. (It’s just a guess, though.)

Jan 282008

We’re currently near the end of Dersu Uzala, I think.

I had remarked in a previous post that I wished Siberiade would have shown us more of Siberia. Well, this one does. There are great scenery shots of frozen lakes, spring breakup, deep forests. But so far there is not much of Siberian settlements and cities. For that, I guess I’ll have to settle for the news programs on RTR Planeta. They sometimes give clips from snowy winter streets in Siberian towns. But I’d like to see how the countryside transitions to town, and what kind of buildings one finds out on the edge, etc.

In Siberiade I had seen something I’ve never seen in the U.S. — people in the woods putting a towel under their hats and letting it flap around their ears and neck. Given the setting, I’m guessing it’s more to shoo mosquitos away than to provide shade from the hot sun. When Nikita Mikhalkov’s oil-drilling crew comes to Elan, several of the men are wearing these things. But later, in a scene in which Mikhalkov is wading through a deep swamp, he takes the thing off, and they are never seen again on anyone. I would think the swamp would be a place where he’d need it like in no other place, but I suppose it’s hard to get good camera shots of the actors’ heads with those things in the way.

Those things made an appearance on Dersu Uzala, too, underneath the soldiers’ military visor hats. But again, it seems they mostly went away, probably to make it easier to photograph faces.

I don’t know if there’s a word for it, so until I learn better I’ll just call them towel heads.